Sunday, June 9, 2013



It is my contention that the '80s represented a kind of renaissance of Jewish-American artists.  The list of young Jewish-American artists who took center stage in the '80s is long - in the early '80s, we might think of Barbara Kruger, Laurie Simmons, Sherrie Levine, R.M. Fischer, Donald Sultan, Julian Schnabel and David Salle.  By mid-decade, we see the work of Ross Bleckner, Terry Winters, Haim Steinbach, and Meyer Vaisman (who is actually from Venezuela) come to the fore.

It is obvious that not every artist of import who emerged in the '80s was Jewish - one need only think of Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, or Jeff Koons.  But the '80s represented a fluorescent period for Jewish-American artists insofar as their numbers and influence were far greater than in the previous or present decade - and because many of the themes that we associate with the '80s are emphatically present in the work of this Jewish-American contingent.

To locate my own place in all this, I am in the funny position of being half-Jewish and half-Catholic.  And if we can consider being Jewish as having some cultural association with alienation, I can attest that being only half-Jewish makes this doubly so, since, being of Jewish descent only on my father's side, I am further removed or alienated from Jewishness, insofar as to a practicing religious Jew I am not Jewish at all, given that Jewish lineage has to come from the maternal side.  Further, and this point will be amplified later, unlike almost all the Jewish-American artists of this generation, I did not grow up in suburbia, but rather in the intense urban milieu of New York City itself.

What originally motivated me to explore this subject was the strange fact that there has been an inexplicable silence surrounding it.  Especially in this era of multicultural awareness, it is, to say the least, surprising that no one has mentioned this phenomenon.  And I believe, as did both Freud and Marx, each in his own way, that when a subject is inexplicably unexamined, there must be something pretty interesting to talk about.

Of course, one could say that the appearance of these Jewish-American artists is of no interest because few of them in any way identify themselves with Jewish beliefs or Jewish subjects.  This is, however, misleading.  It is my view that in the secularized, assimilationist world of contemporary American life, what were once religious, ethnic, or regional belief-systems live on as cultural matrices in the anthropological sense - that being Jewish implies a certain cultural heritage not easily forgotten.  Similarly, as Eleanor Heartney pointed out in a recent issue of Art in America, the cultural background of certain Catholic-American artists continues to assert itself in the interest those artists take in issues to do with the human body in extremis, even though those artists were only "brought up Catholic" and reject the practice of that religion completely.

The only exception I can think of to this studied silence about Jewishness is the work of Deborah Kass, who in the early '90s began to remake Warhols - replacing Warhol's celebrity pantheon specifically with characters of Jewish-American cultural identification.  Her work largely inspired the 1996 exhibition Too Jewish at the Jewish Museum.  However, that show attempted to deal only with the Jewish subject matter in the artists' work, thereby ignoring any possible analysis of current Jewish thematics - and thus excluding such artists as Schnabel, Salle, and Steinbach who, in reality, may be the very artists who are somehow really "too Jewish."

What has also motivated me to try to write about Jewishness in the '80s is the ferocity of critical reaction to the cultural output of that decade in the '90s.  At first I felt that this intense reaction could be explained as simply the predictable Oedipal response as a succeeding generation tried to kill off its cultural predecessor.  However, the duration and intensity of this hostility has perturbed me.

The art in the '80s has consistently been labeled as ostentatious, garish, extravagant, vulgar, and over-scaled.  Of course, these are the epithets usually associated with the aesthetics of the parvenu or nouveau riche.  Moreover, they are also the terms that were in earlier decades used to characterize Jewish-American taste and style.  I want to make it clear that I am not claiming that antisemitism has entered the critical debate.  I would suggest instead that the commentators who have thus defined the '80s have been blind to the meaning that this aesthetics of extravagance may have held for the Jewish artists of the '80s.  In this context, T.J. Clark's 1994 essay describing Abstract Expressionism's vitality as stemming from its embrace of the aesthetics of 'vulgarity' is both symptomatic and revealing.

One possible reason for this silence about a Jewish artistic renaissance in the '80s is that at the same time a great fluorescence of Jewish influence in the areas of philanthropy, business, finance, and the bastions of what we call high society was taking place.  It may be difficult for younger people to believe, but well into the '60s, Jews - as well as other white ethnic minorities - were systematically excluded from positions of high social prestige.  When I was a child, it was understood that a Jew could not be head of a major corporation, a partner in a non-Jewish legal firm or financial company, head of a major philanthropic or cultural institution, or, of course, a member of a high-society social club or country club.  I remember once, as a child, telling an older Jewish man that I wanted to be an architect.  He replied that I was lucky, because when he was a boy a Jew could not be a partner in a major architectural firm.

By the '80s all this had changed.  In fact, in some cities like New York with large Jewish populations, Jews had largely replaced the older WASP elite as standard-bearers of social power and prestige.  Thus a new and as yet unexamined social paradigm arose.  Jews, who because of their marginalized status had championed the marginal culture of Modernism, had suddenly become pillars of the American establishment.  At the same time, the new generation of Jewish artists was supported as often as not by Jews in the cultural elite as part of a continuing tradition of Jewish support for contemporary art.

However, I would suggest that there were uncomfortable differences between the Jewish cultural establishment and the Jewish artists about their respective relationships to Jewish cultural tradition.  First, those in the new Jewish cultural elite seemed quite untroubled in their relationship to Jewish identity - they had remained Jewish while allowing the longstanding Jewish involvement with radicalism and activism to quietly lapse.  The artists, on the other hand, still had an active and compelling relationship with those Jewish cultural and political traditions.  This rift was surely something that was probably better left unsaid.

Secondly, when we talk about multi-culturalism today, we are primarily talking about the integration of previously disenfranchised groups into the cultural mainstream.  It was in the '50s and '60s that Jews as well as ethnic Catholics first gained entry into mainstream American cultural life.  So, it is difficult to talk about the emergence of a Jewish artistic identity in the '80s if Jews had already gained a place in the cultural mainstream by the 1950s.  However, the cultural influences on the young Jewish artists in the '80s were very different than in the '50s - and it is those differences that make a discussion of their work of interest.

I would suggest that the Jewish artists of the '80s, as well as their non-Jewish compatriots, had been subjected to a dramatic and poignant diaspora - a diaspora that moved them, their families, and communities from the city to the suburbs.  I would also suggest that this suburban diaspora was in fact primary subject of art in the '80s in general - it was an attempt to understand the new suburban landscape and social relations within it by the first generation of artists to grow up in suburbia.  To me, this is the dramatic yet unstated undercurrent informing much of the art of the '80s.

It also seems to me that this suburban diaspora was particularly deeply felt by Jewish-American artists because, in many ways, they had the most to lose from this shift from city to suburb.  What they lost, which almost any intellectually or artistically inclined young Jewish person must have thought about, was the rich and varied cultural and political life that Jews had fashioned for themselves in the cities of America since the beginning of the century - a cultural life imbued with experimentalism, radicalism, and romanticism, that grew out of the Jewish desire to refashion European high culture in the New World.  It is my belief that many of the Jewish artists of the '80s felt a longing for this disappearing urban intellectual milieu - expressed variously in their embrace of neo-Marxist politics, the esoterica of French philosophical writing, the bohemianism of the Beat writers, and, of course, the heroic stance of Abstract Expressionism.

For many Jewish artists I've talked to on this subject, Abstract Expressionism, being a movement in the visual arts often associated with Jewish thematics, has been the most intense object of reverie.  Abstract Expressionism afforded the young Jewish artists of the '80s a vehicle for rejecting the prosaic suburban world that their mothers and fathers had created, and re-embracing the dynamic urbanism of their grandmothers and grandfathers.

The universally criticized return to painting in the '80s was certainly to some extent a product of this nostalgia.  Painting in the '80s is all too easily and cynically ascribed to a desire to revitalize the art market and restore to art the status of commodity.  However, I believe that nowadays we too readily fall back on this kind of neo-Marxist thinking to explain away anything and everything.  We have forgotten that there are sociological and anthropological forces at work in cultural production, as well as economic ones.  It is difficult for me to believe that the oversize works of Donald Sulton, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle were not done with the cultural antecedent of Abstract Expressionism in mind.  As an example, when I questioned the Long-Island born Bleckner about his show of austere, abstract stripe paintings in 1981, I mentioned to him that I had noticed that the largest was eight by eighteen feet - the exact size of Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis.  He confirmed that this was not accidental - but that no one else had taken note of the reference.

Besides making big, politically incorrect paintings, the other way the artists of the '80s are today seen as having erred was by making works that are now considered garish and vulgar, that perhaps too much relish the pleasure of their materiality.  Conversely, I see the return to good taste and moderation pursued in the '90s as equally problematic, though clearly fodder for another discussion.

On the most immediate level, it is hard for me to envision how the artists of the '80s could respond to the changes that had taken place in the American landscape in the '70s and '80s without recourse to the same garish materiality that was present in the culture at large.  As the Pop artists first demonstrated, we live in a culture embued with disposable, excessive materiality.  But for many Jewish-American artists of the '80s the whole issue of the vulgar, the materialistic, and the excessive had additional cultural resonance.

As I mentioned previously, in the 1920s and 1930s, Jews were stereotypically seen by non-Jews as overdressed to the point of ostentation, as unconcerned about hiding their material good fortune with the restraints of understated taste, and overly sensuous in their enjoyment of expensive food and other consumables.  A lively debate has always existed as to whether this is simply the self-expression of the parvenu who does not really understand the codes of the establishment, or whether there is some Jewish predilection for hefty consumption borne out of either a Jewish belief in the enjoyment of good fortune or the influence of standards of Central and Eastern European taste that are essentially at odds with American culture.  (It should be noted that artists as different as the Greek-born Lucas Samaras and the Catholic Eastern European Andy Warhol were products of similarly nonconformist systems of taste).

But whatever cultural forces we see at work, there is no doubt that after World War II a great many American Jews made the conscious effort to eliminate this aspect of their Jewishness and to bring their taste more into line with the mainstream American norm.  These were the parents of the Jewish artists of the '80s.  So if we see in the work of R.M. Fischer a dark, almost Byzantine entanglement of form, in the work of Schnabel a compulsive lust for histrionic gesture, or in the work of Bleckner a fascination with the kitschy transcendance of the gaming casino or the hotel ballroom, are we not also witnessing acts of rebellion against this Puritanical assimilationism that may have robbed these artists of some aspect of their Jewishness?

Ironically, just a couple months ago The New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section published a long article proclaiming this to be a great age of Jewish architects.  It spoke eloquently of the pioneering work of Louis Kahn and of the light-infused, measured abstractions of Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, and Moshe Safdie - thus equating Jewishness with the luminous, abstract spirituality that has been the popular image of Jewish aesthetic achievement ever since Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s.  But these Jewish architects are mostly over sixty years of age - almost twenty years older than the generation of artists of the '80s.  Perhaps we can further speculate that the Jewishness of the Jewish artists of the '80s was further ignored because these artists no longer conform to the public's image of what a Jewish artist should be saying.



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